Easter week is here, and it’s that time of the year when families in Ecuador and Ecuadorian immigrants in the US, Canada, and Europe prepare fanesca, one of the most intricate dishes I’ve had the pleasure to prepare and eat. It is so complex that people often gather their extended families to help in the kitchen for a day or two to make it happen. For me, it is a symbol of how complex issues require strong community relations where everyone takes part in the solutions—in this case, a deliciously tasty one. It is also a symbol of indigenous resistance to continue to practice their spiritual traditions.
Fanesca is a dried salted cod, gourd, and squash-based cream that is prepared for Good Friday to abstain from eating mammal and poultry meat. It is a Catholic meal for this day of observance but, like many things Catholic in Latin America, people who don’t practice the religion nor consider themselves religious cook fanesca because it is a deeply ingrained cultural tradition.
The origins of fanesca, in fact, can be traced to pre-colonial times, and historians agree it has its origins in Andean indigenous traditions to celebrate Pawkar Raymi or the solstice of new beginnings, when grains and flowers are sprouting. March 21st also marks the beginning of the Kichwa Andean calendar year (made up 13 months of 28 days each), called Mushuk Nina or new fire, and has been celebrated for millennia as a community gathering to share recently harvested grains and fruits. Solstice festivities or raymikunas are opportunities to promote reciprocity and integration with the ayllu, a concept that encompasses multiple meanings of community, family, and communal land. Rayminkunas are often accompanied by spiritual ceremonies, traditional music and dances, as well as laying communal “tables” set on the floor over colorful blankets.
It is believed originally the dish was called uchuta in Kichwa, which means fresh grains with salsa and herbs, served most probably with meat, until the Catholic appropriation changed its protein base and name. Syncretism in Latin America can be attributed both to the Catholic Church’s drive to appropriate and adapt customs in order to erase them, and people’s resistance to this forced assimilation by continuing traditions within the new regime. The fact that fanesca–as a communal event–is cooked by people from all belief systems goes to show it’s indigenous roots did not only survive but flourished.
Fanesca is made with as many as 12 different grains and vegetables: heirloom corn, peas, lentils, red beans, cannellini beans, chickpeas, fava beans, lupini beans, a root vegetable called melloco, peanuts, onions, garlic, rice, cabbage, and two types of squash. It also includes dry salted cod, milk, and cream. Many of these ingredients need to be prepared days in advance since, in order to have the best-tasting fanesca, people will only use fresh ingredients instead of canned or frozen vegetables.
I have joyful memories as a child of sitting around the table with my mom, grandma, brothers, sometimes aunts and cousins, shelling fresh peas, peeling fava and lupini beans, removing corn kernels one by one, crushing fresh peanuts. The women would be busy working on more time-consuming ingredients, such as peeling and cutting the squash and gourd. Several of the hardiest grains need to be soaked overnight and patiently cooked before adding them to the soup base. The salted cod also needs to be prepared ahead of time, as the soup is meant to have a slight but not overpowering seafood flavor.
Side dishes are also prepared the day of to accompany the fanesca, which often include small empanadas, hard boiled egg slices, fried plantains, cheese, avocado, and homemade salsa or aji.
Fanesca is a communal experience that goes beyond one’s immediate family. It reminds me of complex social issues such as tackling the climate crisis where every individual effort counts, but real change can only be accomplished collectively. It is important to recycle and compost, yes, but it must go hand-in-hand with fighting petroleum-based plastics and the food industrial complex. It is key to communicate about climate justice, but we can’t do so without acknowledging the racial and extractive capitalist roots of climate disasters, and to do that, we need to listen to the people most affected by the crisis. But just giving space to diverse voices is not enough: we need to fund these efforts at their roots.
Using heirloom corn in fanesca instead of frozen sweet corn kernels will yield a totally different flavor experience. Yet its significance goes beyond taste: it has to do with reclaiming the best-tasting organic ingredients, the time to cook, and the communal experience that it takes to make this complex dish successful. It’s also about recognizing indigenous harvest traditions and our relationship to campesinos who so zealously take care of the land and its produce. It is one of my favorite traditional Ecuadorian meals.